Months of careful planning; long days and nights of tireless graft; and mile after mile of hauling cars and crew from track to track as each is pushed to find the pace to create a title-worthy challenger: And yet it all came down to the simplest of choices; wets or slicks?

Perhaps if it were anywhere else, the tyre choice would have been simpler. But the camber of Paddock Hill, the tree-lined run up to Druids, the sprint down to Graham Hill bend, and the launch out of Clearways, all require the surety of grip. With a bustling 32-car grid, it’s little wonder that the title favourites all chose the Dunlop BluResponse wet weather tyre for the BTCC’s opening round, yet it was also a moment for those who could see the opportunity and were prepared to seize it.

In previous years, I’ve talked about the ascendency of the new generation of touring car stars and of the need to consistently score well. In a way, this season will be no different, except for two key factors: With the standard of driving talent getting ever stronger, and with only subtle differences between cars, the focus has now turned to the quality and durability of each team’s engineering, and the ability of drivers to anticipate and manage tyre choices in both stable and changing conditions.

To win in 2019, experience behind the wheel and on the pit wall are going to need to work seamlessly, yet as Josh Cook, Andrew Jordan, Rory Butcher and Tom Chilton all so capably proved, when the odds are stacked, you need to be prepared to roll the dice too.

Here are twenty of our favourite images from Sunday’s race; roll on Donington!

    Cook’s switch to the BTC squad is long overdue. Bert Taylor’s presence and influence over the former Jack Sears Trophy winner has been a constant throughout his formative years. Now, with a rejuvenated management structure (due to the involvement of Steve Dudman), BTC arrived at Brands Hatch as a race-winning team sporting a pair of new FK8 Type R Civics, and two of the finest young drivers on the grid.

    Choosing slicks for the damp, fog-enveloped race seemed the riskiest option but Cook spent the green flag laps wisely, working-in heat and testing the adhesion. Sutton (from pole), and the rear-driven BMWs were quick off the line but the Honda man simply bided his time, knowing that a line would soon emerge that he could exploit. By lap 4, those on wets were starting to struggle whilst Cook’s pace gathered, allowing the Type R to scythe past champions and former teammates to take the third win of a career that finally looks set to deliver on its promise.

    Of all the new and revamped cars to line-up at Brands Hatch, the BMW 330i M Sport looks the most sorted. Lean, fast and punchy, Andrew Jordan proved its potential with an almost 10-second margin over Sutton in Race 2 (from P15 on the grid). We won’t really know its true pace until it races at Donington and Thruxton, but from what I’ve seen from testing and this past weekend, I’ll already happily say that this car could well prove to be the greatest of the NGTC era, ready to usurp Honda’s exceptional FK2 Civic Type R.

    Rory Butcher is one of those drivers who has spent most of his career being far better than his car. This year is going to be different. Not only have AmD acquired the two former Eurotech Hondas, they’ve also recruited engineer Craig Porley, a man who would be at the top of my list if ever I returned to the pit wall.

    It’s an important year for Tom Ingram: No longer a cheeky independent but rather, a fully works-backed champion with the expectations of Toyota and an ever growing legion of fans behind him. Don’t expect miracles, but do expect him to gain momentum and justify his status.

    Tom Chilton and Jake Hill both arrived at Brands Hatch with much to prove. Chilton’s performance was almost flawless, passing the 1500 BTCC career points mark, whilst showing that being in the well-developed Motorbase Focus RS might just set him apart from those facing new challenges in new machinery. David Bartrum’s squad has been the ‘nearly’ men for far too long now; if Chilton can maintain his composure, then he’s going to be in the reckoning when the championship returns to Brands Hatch in October.

    Jake Hill returns to the BTCC after an aborted 2018 season with Team Hard. Like Cook, he’s not afraid to put himself in the heart of a fight, instinctively relying on raw pace to propel his Audi forward. His challenge must now be to push for better qualifying results so that he can continue to race for podiums instead of points.

    Mike Bushell’s late withdrawal from the grid was a sad loss for team and fans alike, but who better to replace him than Jack Goff, a driver who season after season proves himself more than most yet so often finds himself lacking the funds to secure the career he deserves.

    By contrast, Michael Crees is a new recruit to the BTCC, graduating from the supporting Ginetta GT4 Supercup where he was 2018’s ‘Am’ champion. He’ll benefit hugely from Goff’s data and experience and is already a points scorer having finished 12th on his debut.

    Two old champs are lined-up in 2019, both with points to prove. Jason Plato’s switch to Vauxhall is the best thing that could have happened to him after two disheartening seasons with Subaru. Still seeking that all-conquering 100th win, Plato now seems far more relaxed with the Power Maxed Squad than he ever did at BMR. We know his car has pace, we know Plato has pace. Can they combine to deliver? I think he’ll need a few lucky reverse-grid draws, but given the chance, he’s never going to look back.

    Mark Blundell joins the BTCC after a mighty career in F1 and Champ Cars. It’s going to take him time to acclimatise to both the Audi and the barging but don’t assume he’s only here for the payday. He’s a racer through and through.

    The fog might have dampened the track but not the spirits of the thousands packed onto the grid for the pre-race photo op. Ash Sutton’s pole position delivering a timely reminder that for all the troubles within his team, give him a car in the wet and he’ll deliver.

    New teammate Senna Proctor knows this is his chance to show that he’s the right man to match Sutton’s pace. There’s no doubting his talent or commitment, but if he’s going to build on the success of last year, he has to learn to drive the car to its limit and not to his.

    Team Dynamics don’t just race cars; they build them too. BTC Racing’s new Civic Type R FK8s both had their chassis and body constructed by the Honda works squad before being assembled and engineered at BTC’s new facility at Brackley.

    What a difference in fortunes it was for the two outfits: Josh Cook racing to victory (and the championship lead) whilst former triple champion, Matt Neal having to use every sinew to wrestle his car home in the top ten after starting on pole for Race 3.

    Two drivers who are often in the heart of the action yet tend to make few headlines are Stephen Jelley and Bobby Thompson. Jelley’s return to the BTCC has been plagued by circumstances, often not of his doing. Nevertheless, every now and then, he’s still shown glimpses of the form that made him a race winner a decade ago: This weekend he shone! Not only racing to his first podium since 2009 but importantly, the first for former British GT champions, Team Parker Racing.

    Thompson managed just three points finishes in 2018. Last weekend, he scored in every race, not only equalling last year’s record but surpassing his highest ever finish, being placed 6th in Race 1. We’re going to hear a lot more from these two.

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Images: Steve Hindle (The Black Stuff) and Mike Hills (Hills Speed Images).